Supreme Court to Decide Fate of $8 Billion Pipeline That Could Devastate Black Communities

By Keya Vakil

February 26, 2020

The $8 billion, 605-mile natural gas pipeline would transport natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina but has faced staunch opposition from environmental groups.

Supporters promise it will bring economic development, jobs, and reduce energy costs for customers. Opponents say it will harm the environment, threaten important landmarks, and put already-vulnerable populations at risk. Now, after years of battle, we’re one step closer to knowing the future of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about an essential permit needed by the pipeline’s developers. The $8 billion, 605-mile natural gas pipeline, first proposed in 2014, would transport natural gas from West Virginia to Virginia and North Carolina. But the project, which would be constructed through parts of the George Washington and Monongahela National Forests and cross the Appalachian Trail, has faced one legal challenge after another from activists and environmental groups.

Those battles have led to the dismissal or suspension of eight permits and more than a year-long delay in construction. 

The case before the Court is centered around one of those permits. The U.S. Forest Service initially granted pipeline developers Dominion Energy and Duke Energy permission to construct the pipeline through the national forests and part of the Appalachian Trail. Environmental groups filed a lawsuit challenging the permit, and the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with them, ruling in December 2018 that the U.S. Forest Service did not have the authority to approve the trail crossing.

Dominion is now asking the Supreme Court to overturn the lower court’s ruling and is being aided in that effort by the Trump administration. U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco has joined Dominion attorneys in arguing that the U.S. Forest Service has jurisdiction over land in the George Washington National Forest, where a 0.1 mile segment of the pipeline would cross about 700 feet under the Appalachian Trail.

Opponents like the Sierra Club and Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) disagree. Because the historic trail is considered part of the National Park System, they argue, no federal agency can approve right-of-way, or the legal right to pass through land belonging to another person or entity. They contend that such a right-of-way can only be granted by Congress.

Opposition to the pipeline is rooted in the belief that it would damage the natural beauty of the area, threaten water quality in rivers and streams, and harm sensitive and endangered species. Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring, a Democrat, has filed a brief on behalf of the project’s opponents, in which he insisted that the pipeline threatens “several of Virginia’s most cherished places.”

Environmental advocates also argue that the pipeline, which is set to run through predominantly African-American and lower-income communities, will put these already vulnerable residents at greater risk of environmental injustice. Seven of the eight counties the pipeline would run through in North Carolina have substantial African-American populations and high rates of poverty, according to a report from the NAACP.

“The expansion of the ACP and other natural gas infrastructure along the North Carolinian coast would have unavoidable adverse impacts on already vulnerable communities,” the report concluded.

Of particular concern is the fact that one of the pipeline’s three planned compressor stations—facilities that help compress and transport natural gas—would be located in Northampton County, North Carolina.

Compressor stations emit pollutants that can trigger asthma attacks and increase the risk of cancer, both of which are already more prevalent in African-American communities like Northampton County. 

Fifty-eight percent of residents in Northampton County are Black, and the cancer rate in the county is 516.6 per 100,000 people. (The state average is only 488.9 per 100,000.) The rates of lung and bronchial cancers—two forms of cancer caused by common air pollutants—are particularly high in the county: 80.5 per 100,000 people compared to 70.1 per 100,000 statewide. 

“Given the current state of vulnerable populations in the area of impact of the proposed pipeline, particularly in in North Hampton, a compressor station, pipeline, and other natural gas infrastructure, could exacerbate health problems from increased air pollution,” the NAACP report reads. 

One of the other proposed compressor stations is in another historic African American community: Union Hill in Virginia. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit threw out the permit for that facility in January, ruling that state regulators failed to consider whether the station would disproportionately harm a vulnerable population.

Dominion says it’s determined to resolve the issues surrounding the Union Hill permit and all other permits. The company also insists it has taken all environmental concerns into account. 

“This project, even from the start, has always been designed with the environment in mind,” company spokeswoman Ann Nallo told the Washington Post

In a press release last week, the developers also stated that the pipeline will play a key role in “protecting the National Park System with its commitment to safety and environmental stewardship.”

Dominion and Duke Energy say the pipeline is necessary to meet growing demand for gas in Virginia and North Carolina—a claim that has been met with skepticism from opponents. Herring wrote in his brief that “the demand for natural gas will remain flat or decrease for the foreseeable future and can be met with existing infrastructure.”

The Court isn’t expected to issue a ruling until May or June, but the decision could have an outsized impact. If the Court rules that pipelines cannot cross the Appalachian trail, as many as 10 other proposed pipelines, including the $5.5 billion, 300-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline, would be affected. Such a ruling would force the companies behind those projects to either reroute or cancel their projects altogether.
Even if the Court rules in favor of Dominion, it won’t be the end of the pipeline’s challenges. A half-dozen other pipeline-related permits remain revoked or suspended.

  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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